There is a very popular phrase used around capitals all across the country these days. Surely, you’ve heard your legislator or a statewide official utter the words, “workforce development.”
It may be the two most commonly used words in state government today, after “fundraising event.” But what does it mean to develop? And who is being developed and by whom? It sounds innocent enough, but how do we actually develop workers for the future with the precious resources we have from taxpayers today? More vitally, how do we know what the future looks like exactly?
If what we mean by this innocuous phrase is to fully develop the child from age 5 to 18 through a comprehensive education system that renders students who are capable to go out into the world with the knowledge, skills, and competencies required to be productive citizens, then count me in. If we can educate our children in a way that bestows upon them the freedom to choose a path after high school from a variety of options, then I’m all for that.
If, however, we mean that we want to transform taxpayer-funded schools into job-training sites, then count me out. This is not the purpose of education.
We’ve heard a lot lately about the need to make computer science or coding an essential element of high school curricula, for example. This would not be the first time we’ve heard the clamor from companies to influence schools to meet their specific, current needs. In the early 1900s, the federal government provided funding to states in order to train students for manufacturing jobs. Such vocational training necessarily restricts the amount of time we can dedicate to the fundamental subjects like reading, writing, arithmetic, science, history, and government. Do we really want to produce graduates of our high schools who know less about reading, math, or U.S. government?
While computer science and programming are valuable endeavors and the tech sector has played an important role in our economy, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that only 3 percent of the roughly 171 million workers in the U.S. economy will hold computer or information technology jobs in 2028. The projections predict roughly 500,000 new jobs in the next 20 years in these fields.
In other words, the average state should see somewhere around 500 jobs per year. In a state the size of Mississippi, it works out to maybe a couple of hundred jobs per year. Don’t get me wrong, we need technology and innovation in Mississippi, and we should do all we can to encourage students to pursue computer science with their elective classes, particularly if a student has an interest in pursuing the field after graduation.
Government schools, and private ones for that matter, are about more than job preparation. They are also about developing minds, nurturing a love for learning, making informed citizens, reinforcing American values, and ensuring a continued inheritance of liberty and justice that lives on beyond ourselves. We have a duty to protect that purpose in our society.
It’s a greater responsibility than ensuring we produce workers for large employers in our state.
If we provide our students with a proper education, they will make wonderful employees in whatever field they choose. They might even start their own companies, become tech entrepreneurs, and create the next big company in Mississippi. Perhaps they’ll become lawyers, doctors, engineers, or farmers. Our job is to maximize their career possibilities, not to steer them towards one or another.
The next time you hear a politician speak of “workforce development,” make sure you ask what they mean. I just hope they don’t mean two other commonly used words around Mississippi – “federal grants.”